Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement

The usual caveats apply here for SF first published in 1954. Cameras with film in them, laying out prints to form maps of the surface of a world etc. The digital, computer, internet age sat firmly in a future not imagined by SF writers then. Nevertheless a wonderfully visualised alien world, characters one cared about, albeit the main ones being hydrogen-breathing caterpillars, with pincers, living on a world whose gravity varied from 3g to 700g, and a stonking good tale too. Very enjoyable.

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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Slaves of the Klau - Jack Vance

Heh. Old SF that brings home that often what is imagined can be limited by what is. It's not possible to write SF that will stand the test of time in this respect unless you're very vague. You can extrapolate on anything but still get most of it wrong and completely miss other things. But this alone wasn't much of a problem - one can enjoy the story telling and description and chuckle at the anachronisms. At the beginning, however, I nearly gave up because of the naive pig-headed behaviour of Barch, the hero. Later on the portrayal of the aliens - basically rubber head humans we've seen in so much SF TV - also irritated. But now I'm remembering that Vance often wrote annoying characters and as a youth it was all the other stuff that kept me uncritically engaged. Still, this rocked along at a good pace and I did extract enjoyment from it.

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Into The Out Of - Alan Dean Foster

Two Americans are chosen by a Maasai Laibon to help him close an opening breach into the 'out of' because the shetani are coming through - a wide selection of deformed demons with some nasty habits and intentions. Again I enjoyed Foster's story telling and again some aspects of this felt dated. Some things did annoy, like the woman going off to pee behind a bush at one point and being grabbed by Shetani, then doing exactly the same thing later with the same result. The man's perpetual disbelief in the shetani that went on long after one had tried to bite his foot off and he'd agreed to go to Africa. The woman's ineptitude and the fact that she was only there to provide love interest and be rescued. But overall a solid read.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Lockdown Tales

As I said in the previous post, during lockdown I wrote a few novellas. Well, I’ve been sporadically writing novellas for a while – very often when I sit down with the intention of writing a short story it grows in the telling. Two of them have in fact turned into the first two books in my next contract with Macmillan.

I’ve published some of these over the last year or so. One was Monitor Logan in World War Four edited by Sam M. Phillips and Adam Bennett in March last year. Another is Moral Biology in a magazine I once read copies of when a teenager, and even then they were old. Analog Science Fiction has been running since 1930 and to me, just like Asimov’s, is a legendary publication so it was great to be published there. And another called The Bosch I published myself to Amazon Kindle and POD.

But still I had plenty more yet to find a home and, trying to be tidy about this, I decided to publish them as a collection. That I’d written a few during lockdown and come to the decision to publish them at this time, Lockdown Tales seemed like the perfect title. Happily I can announce that the collection will be published by Ian Whates of NewCon Press in the UK, so that means stuff like limited signed editions and other good stuff. 

Lockdown Tales consists of six novellas and novelettes (depending on what your definition of those are) and amounts to about 150,000 words (about the length of The Skinner). These stories are:

The Relict is found buried in old lava in what is coming to be called ‘Far Future Polity’.  The first part exposed is a huge metal claw. . .

Monitor Logan was published in WWIV and not. Call this the director’s cut if you like. In this I tell the backstory too. Science fiction High Plains Drifter.

Bad Boy is what, with their tendency to understatement, the Hoopers of Spatterjay have named a giant whelk, which has come up from the ocean floor to denude islands and sink ships.     

Plenty is the name of this ‘Far Future Polity’ world where Ben has been stranded. He is surviving, just, despite the Night Stalker. And he too discovers the utility of old technology dug out of the ground.

Dr Whip is the only survivor of a virus aboard a space station. He has been changed, irrevocably – not by the virus but by the one who brought it to the station: Penny Royal.

Raising Moloch sees the return of Jonas Clyde the hooder expert so, of course, hooders are involved. Raising a monster can be a risky occupation. . .
There you go. I’ve written an introductions to these as a whole and individually. Publication date is to be decided – maybe towards the end of this year. I hope you’ll enjoy them!

My Lockdown

We’ve been in lockdown now for three months. When this started I was immediately sceptical because it seemed a hysterical overreaction, along with, in the UK, the Tory need not to be seen as the ‘nasty’ party. With the death tolls coming in I changed my mind about that and thought maybe it might be necessary, and I’ve wavered between the two poles ever since. I’m not going to get into all the reasons why it may have been necessary or unnecessary. There’s plenty of information out there and one must make one’s own decision – search out ‘lockdown sceptics’ for example. Even after this is all over the arguments will rage on because, as it seems with every major ‘issue’, this has now become politically polarised. One thing we can be sure of is that we’ll be paying for the damage caused by the lockdown for a long time to come.

The loss of jobs, businesses and lives destroyed is a cost yet to be counted. The recent riots and the destruction they have caused I would firmly blame on the lockdown. It’s difficult to rage at a virus or attempts to ameliorate its effects, so some, feeling anger and frustration, want people to blame, or an event to focus their feelings on. This is of course exacerbated by the MSM, social media and the sheer reach of the internet now. We can get news and on the spot videos of events all around the world almost instantly on our mobile devices. As I've said before: when we had that tsunami it was there for us to see in minutes. Fifty years before it would have been a few column inches on page three of the Sunday newspaper. This instant news imparts an impression of perpetual chaos because, well, crap happens all the time somewhere and always now someone is filming it and hoping it will go 'viral'.

So, in respect of the riots, it is worth considering how much of the present impression of a world gone mad, is an artefact of all this. Should some be thinking 'end of civilization!' because maybe ten assholes pull down a statue or because thousands are rioting in scattered cities, across a world whose population is near eight billion? That being said, seeing British police kneeling to Marxist protestors, the corporate virtue-signalling and people kicked out of jobs because of being insufficiently politically correct, is nauseating.

But fuck all that.

At first, the lockdown didn’t really change my lifestyle much. Throughout winter in the UK I simply write, exercise and get jobs done. The first thing I lost was visits to my local gym, but in their stead I started going for long walks and brought my weights inside, cleaned the rust off, and started using them. Next, on a couple of occasions, I drove to the shops then simply turned round and went home again – soon learning to time my shopping trips so as to avoid the ridiculous scattered out queues. But even if your lifestyle is like mine the frustrations build. I first made the mistake of engaging with all the social media rage which, to be honest, seems more infectious than covid. That made me feel crappy and I soon stepped away from it. A ‘fuck it’ attitude then led to me hammering the booze, which made me feel crappy and I’ve stepped away from that too. This was all exacerbated for me when my first flight to Crete was cancelled, and now on my fourth cancellation frustration has turned to resignation.

But there have been upsides to all this, for me at least, and the lapses from self-discipline have been few. After coffee and a (limited) browse of the social media, here’s my routine on most days: I turn on my main computer to write and read through five science articles, interspersed with editing and writing. I do this for half an hour because I’ve learned the dangers of sitting all day at a desk. I then get up to write in my journal, in Greek, for a quarter of an hour before returning to the computer. I alternate like this throughout the day – transitioning to reading Greek out loud when I’ve filled in a journal page, and transitioning to writing only once I’ve read those articles. On most days I extend the quarter hour away from the computer by doing five-minute sets of weight training – totalling 20 to 30 minutes a day. Come the end of the writing day, with (mostly) 2,000 words of fiction written, I put on my trainers and go for a 7 mile walk – sometimes further when feeling particularly pissed off (17 miles is the longest so far). 

I’m not sure of the numbers now, but during this lockdown I’ve edited a book and written three or four novellas and had some stuff published. The latter are a novella called Moral Biology in Analog and a novella called The Bosch I published myself to Amazon Kindle and POD. The book I edited is Jack Four – a standalone set in the Polity telling the story of a clone delivered to the King’s Ship (the home of the prador king) and the tale that ensues. There will be monsters – I promise monsters. The three (or four) novellas include one Owner novella while the others are Polity ones. These last, combined with a number I wrote before, will be published as a collection called, inevitably, Lockdown Tales.

Book Cover: The Bosch

Another upside has been my reading. Tending to avoid the rage mob on social media and finding little to interest me on TV, I’ve pushed my nose back into books. For some years now I’ve had a problem with this, maybe related to past anxiety and depression, or to the addictive attraction of the internet, or to a degree I’ve become jaded with it. I’ve found myself abandoning book after book – pushed out of them for various reasons. Sometimes with more modern books this is because of overt political correctness, and sometimes it is because, spending so much time writing, I often still have my editing head switched so the errors are glaring. But either way I’ve been finding it difficult to recapture that ‘suspension of disbelief’ and sensawunda – difficult to escape into books. But this time, going back to reading some old stuff, I’ve been able to recapture some of that, as you will see by the reviews that have appeared here. In the last couple of weeks I’ve read more books than in all of last year.

Anyway, that’s enough of a ramble. I just hope that all of you out there can garner some benefits from this interminable confinement, perhaps even a greater appreciation of life when this shit-show is over.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Tar-Aiym Krang - Alan Dean Foster

Another classic read. It's a familiar story of a quest to find some powerful alien artefact and a bit of a romp from start to finish. We have the profit-seeking merchants, the good guys of the Humanx amalgamation and the boy hero with his pet mini-dragon and nascent psionic powers. It's old stuff of course. One has to accept that said alien artefact has dials, switches and miles of wiring though now we are living in an age when they have all but disappeared. I could imagine breadboards of transistors heating up somewhere inside the Krang. One part, that thoroughly dates this and made me chuckle more, was when Flinx got a utility belt that had on it an amazing device that could store fifty books! Yet, characters and story are all, and Foster does both very well. I very much enjoyed this and now need to get hold of the ensuing books.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Nor Crystal Tears - Alan Dean Foster

A classic and still as enjoyable now as the last time I read it, however many years ago that was. Told from thr POV of Ryo (mostly) one of the Thranx - intelligent alien bugs - this is the story of first-contact with the human race. This has to be the first time in a long while that I've sat and read a book cover to cover almost without stopping. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Broken Lands - Fred Saberhagen

I'm sure I've encountered 'the magic comes back (or is revealed)' after some catastrophe many times before, but the only one I can think of at the moment is Stephen King's The Stand. Though it's not stated I would guess, going by the time this was written, the catastrophe here would have been nuclear war. So technology is lying around, sorcerers raise elementals, and agents of the evil empire of the East are enslaving the good farming folk of the West. A boy whose parents are killed is set on a course of vengeance and joins the revolution . . . and thus far it is all pedestrian and predictable. But the Eastern ruler fears the elephant, for it has been foretold to bring him down and now, to throw a SPOILER in: it doesn't have legs but treads and runs on nuclear power. I didn't enjoy this as I remembered. I think that's more to do with my mood and wanting to get onto what I remembered as the good stuff. New readers may well enjoy it a lot more because, being pretty much fantasy, it's not really gone past its use by date.

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Destination Universe - A E Van Vogt

Enjoyable old SF stories of variable quality. I wonder if it is because they are so old that's what makes it possible to enjoy them. The anachronisms are large, the whole milieu dated, even if in a supposed future, that there is no need for that 'suspension of disbelief' because these are not something one can hope to incorporate in a world-view. I mean, if you read a modern SF book you can mentally draw a line from our present to it. No matter how fantastical it has the illusion of the possible. These old SF stories have slid off into a parallel, off of our world line into the not possible at all. But they are enjoyable, amusing and a window into social and SF history. Antique futures.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Empire of the Atom - A. E. Van Vogt

Terry Pratchett once took the piss out of 'quantum' in that it explains everything and it can do anything. Another one for modern SF is 'nano-technology' and both are essentially equivalent to abracadabra. But go back the over 70 years to when Empire of the Atom was written and we have just entered the atomic age, and of course 'atomic' is the word. Atomic 'stuff' can do anything and it is like magic. Only a few physicists knew any better, so the ridiculous 'science' of this escaped scrutiny and now with, as Aldiss once described his collection STAN, that 'whiff of antiquity', this book is sliding into fantasy. Add in the armies and sword waving battles on Earth, Venus and Mars that come straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs and it has firmly arrived. Yet, despite all that, I enjoyed the wry observation of human nature, the intrigue and that most important element of all: the story telling.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Book of Ptath

This cover is amusing - you couldn't make one that's more irrelevant to the story inside. I imagine that with Van Vogt being an 'SF writer' the publishers were struggling to give what is fantasy an sfnal look. 200 million years in the future the god Ptath wanders back into his realm after a long absence. He has no memory, is virtually indestructible, and is immediately snared up in the machinations of the goddess Ineznia to seize his power. I found my mind wandering with this one - too much introspection and plain dumb behaviour from Ptath, ideas not used properly (like the 1944 mind in his skull), the idea of Ineznia's oppression increasing worship for him wasn't clearly expressed (these gods derive their power from worship) and it all fizzled a bit at the end.

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Sunday, June 07, 2020

Away and Beyond - A E Van Vogt

Yes, there are anachronisms in these stories, like paper records, the need to get to a phone when spaceships are zipping round the solar system, instrument panels with old radio dials on them and a machine that cuts holes through hyperspace, yet runs on thermionic valves. But oddly I didn't find these too jarring. The last machine mentioned was developed in WWII so yeah, it would have been valves and radio dials. Others like The Great Engine, were of their time (set in the late 40s) though as ever with old SF like this, it moved on to an earth-like Venus - the other option being one covered in hot jungle. Some stories ended abruptly and anticlimactically. But then I get to the last story, Asylum, where Van Vogt gets into the stuff I really like from him: superminds, Dreel space vampires and the Galactics. A worthy read - I enjoyed it!

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